Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Billy Drago, July 24, 1987

Standard-Examiner staff


There's a chilling scene in "The Untouchables" in which Al Capone's hit man, Frank Nitti, sits in a car outside G-man Eliot Ness' home, smoking cigarettes. Ness isn't home, but when he does arrive, after dark, Nitti expounds on the virtues of family life.

It's Nitti's way of letting Ness know that if Capone continues to be harassed, Ness' wife and child will be murdered. It would be easy, Nitti intimates by his presence outside the home, for him to have walked in and snuffed out their lives.

In the movie, Nitti is a dastardly, evil character. But in reality, the actor who played him -- Billy Drago -- is soft-spoken and unassuming. And Drago says he's loving the attention the movie has given him.

"I have literally not been able to go on the street one day since the picture opened without somebody coming up, or being in a restaurant and having someone say something to me," Drago said last week during a telephone interview from his Los Angeles home. "It happens everywhere I go."

The odd thing is, he added, that people seem to like him and the character he played. They treat him like a long lost friend and tell him they thought Nitti was great.

"I can't put my finger on that, as opposed to other heavies I've played," the 35-year-old Drago said. "I just can't explain that."

Folks back home in his native Hugoton, Kan., however, have been reacting somewhat differently to his portrayal.

"My mother called up, after she'd seen the movie and she said that a lot of people had called her -- it's funny in that they treat it differently there -- and a lot of them said, 'What happened to him? He used to be such a nice young man when he went to high school here.'"

Drago said his youth in southwestern Kansas was very much like "The Last Picture Show" -- a town slowly dying and people wanting to escape.

"We had one movie house," he recalled, "and in the high school we didn't have a drama department because it was so small. So I used to go to the movies three times a week because they changed the pictures three times a week. And it always seemed so exciting that people were doing all these things that a country boy from Kanas never thought of -- riding, driving, flying planes and doing all these things in the movies.

"I didn't know how you went about doing that -- I had no idea. But we had a local country music radio station, and that was the only part of (show business) that I was really familiar with, at all, so I went into radio."

Within a few years and after several small radio stations, Drago had a country-western music show on the Mutual Broadcasting Network in Kansas City. But he hadn't licked his hankering to act. So when a touring acting troupe came through town, Drago took time to audition for a part.

Much to his surprise, they said it was his for the taking, but it would mean touring Canada for six months. It didn't take him long to make up his mind.

"I called my lawyer up and told him, 'Look, cancel the show. I'm going to Canada to be an actor.'"

After the tour, Drago took a train to New York and survived doing stage work -- including a couple Broadway shows -- and what television parts he could get. Then, in 1980, he fled the East Coast for the sunshine and movie studios of Los Angeles. One of his first films was "Windwalker," which was shot in Utah.

"I played one of the bad Indians who was chasing after Trevor (Howard)," Drago said. "I had to learn to speak Crow. We were there three months, part of the time in Salt Lake City and part of the time up in Park City. It was beautiful. ... I don't think I could live there, but we had a great time."

Villains. That's pretty much all Drago has played since arriving in Hollywood.

"When I was in New York, I always played the Montgomery Clift sort of parts," the character actor said. "But when I came out here, every show has a heavy, so to break in, I tried to take a practical approach and took the opportunities that came along. I thought, 'Well, I'm never going to be the boy next door, so let me take a shot at this.'"

In fact, Drago said he prefers to play heavies. "People ask, 'Does it bother you that you're getting typecast?' And I say, 'No. That's the first step.' You wanna get typecast, and then you try to branch out from there. Because those are the most interesting characters." Then he begins to laugh, adding, "I'm no good playing the Tab Hunter parts.

"Right now, since I've got all this visibility from 'The Untouchables,' I'm trying to go a little more into the types of roles Humphrey Bogart played -- where' you're not the boy next door, but you're still the hero, just off center a little bit."

As for the experience of working on "The Untouchables," Drago leaves one with the impression he'd have played a doormat, if asked, just to be involved with the project. He said the three weeks of rehearsal before filming started was the most fun of the whole project, as he got to know actors like Sean Connery, whom he calls a "legend," and work with director Brian De Palma.

"Once we started filming -- after the first couple weeks -- everyone sort of, at the same time, looked at each other and said, 'Boy, you know I think we've got a chance to make a really classic movie, one of those where 25 years from now it's going to be something that you were in the picture.'"

In reality, Drago's character, Nitti, was an equal partner of Capone's, and took over the business after Capone was jailed. In researching the role, Nitti was able to speak with members of the Nitti family.

"Capone kind of did the 'Meet the Press' angle and Nitti worked behind the scenes," Drago explained. "He was an interesting man. He seemed to be totally amoral, not immoral. It seemed to be all the same to him -- whether he killed somebody or whether he helped somebody out. He would just as soon do one as the other. He didn't draw any conclusions as to what he'd done -- it was all the same to him. That's the feeling I got.

"In, reality, he didn't die until 1943. But the picture only went to 1930 or '31, and we were trying to show what really happened to him. ... So everyone decided to take liberties with the facts to really give the kind of truth about what happened to him. In reality, he committed suicide in 1943, was one of the only big-time gangsters they know of that committed suicide.

"So that's why my character sort of eggs Eliot Ness on and, in a sense, pushes him until he pushes me off the roof, to kind of show that suicidal angle of his personality."

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